Orange slices at halftime.
While all youth sports have things that make them special, there is no image more iconic than orange slices being shared out of a big, colorful Tupperware bowl at halftime of a youth soccer match. The peels in the mouth are wildly fun, and only the most veteran soccer parent remembers to bring a bag for halftime garbage.
As a dad of three daughters, girls’ and women’s soccer is all I know, the only soccer I’ve ever coached, and the soccer I am most passionate about. But in the middle of tournament travel, anxiety over keeping a precious spot on the higher team and the endless alphabet soup of ECNL, NPL, DA and all that other jazz, it is easy to long for a simpler time. Gone are the days with ill-fitting uniforms, one ball and a sea of kids running around every Saturday morning on a field where grass left a long time ago.
I’m not sure which age orange slices disappeared from the halftime chalk talk, but it’s metaphoric, yes? The loss of the ubiquitous snack is a sign that the game is no longer a rite of passage for a little boy or girl. As the years roll on by, the game and the result take over as the most important thing, not necessarily the joy of simply playing.
This is what makes the image of orange slices so painful, so powerful in the exquisite City Lights Theater production of Sarah DeLappe’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize nominated play “The Wolves.” The brilliance of DeLappe’s highly nuanced script is that it spends much time exploring the pressures and promise of a group of teenage girls on an indoor soccer team. Yet it also sneakily explores another dynamic through a single character that speaks for those that do the driving, check into the hotels and grab ice for the water bottles – the soccer mom.
The theatre and Ron Gasparinetti’s set design have been scaled down considerably for this production, a stage replaced by a pitch. Seating moves to an in-the-round dimension, balls pop into the crowd from the occasional bad trap and Kimberly Mohne Hill’s deft direction of such a fresh-faced cast has the action moving non-stop. There are drills, spider drills, first touch drills, all of this filled with a cacophony of conversation.
This is where the play goes through some engrossing and unusual directions. If you think that a discussion about the Khmer Rouge wouldn’t exactly be appropriate soccer stretch conversation, then you obviously don’t have a daughter playing for the Wolves. Yet here they are, diving into just about everything – world history, chatter about boys and their coach hitting the bottle a bit too hard the night before, leaving him bleary eyed for the big game.
The play’s power comes from these conversations, which delves into anxieties stemming from the sport itself. Because the play is structured where the action off stage plays such a huge role in how the story moves through space, the pain the remaining girls experience as they watch the recruited ones go speak to a college coach is palpable.
What works so well is DeLappe’s attention to the duality of a young girl. There are blurred lines when seeing such a precocious ballet of athletic skill, yet that savant-like attention to a sport does not necessarily apply to their actual lives. These young women are coming into their adolescence with reckless abandon, experiencing sexual awakenings that hurt other teammates, understand that the game goes on whether they are playing or injured and discover the magic of saying the word, “fuck.”
As performers, both #7 and #14 do much work to bring lots of tension to the team while #11 and #25 are sharp in getting the team to focus on the game at hand. And #00, who functions as an enigma for most of the show, wonderfully explodes into a visceral ball of madness, actions that ultimately bring her closer to her teammates. It is a sharp ensemble of performers unified smartly by Hill.
But there is one performer who comes in at the end with a slight twist, and that is Janine Saunders Evans, who scintillates as the soccer mom. It is a character that yearns for all that is good about watching a child play a sport, the thrill of cheering for girls wearing the same colors as your own daughter, and what it means when those days are over. In my own experience, I have had conversations with plenty of families whose daughters have quit playing, while their parents express the end of a career as “mourning.” The community of like-minded parents and the alchemy of a team working together for a common goal has disappeared for the soccer mom, a role that Evans drills home like a perfect PK. And that perfection hurts.
I’ll never forget when my oldest daughter was nine and was asked to play on a higher-level team for a game along with three other girls in order to be evaluated for a spot. And at the next practice after that game, in a classic asshole move, the coach showed up to her practice, took the other three girls to their new team about 100 yards away, never telling my daughter a word.
It wasn’t being left off the team that was the problem. It was the way the coach went about delivering the information, or not delivering any information at all, leaving a nine-year-old girl to process on her own what she did wrong. It was that moment where our family learned that the game was no longer just a game.
For her, for the soccer mom in this play, and for the young women on the Wolves who are navigating a new kind of pain, a very important lesson is learned as time marches forward:
Orange slices will always be delicious, but will never taste the way they used to at halftime of a game that meant absolutely nothing.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
City Lights Theater presents “The Wolves”
Written by Sarah DeLappe
Directed by Kimberly Mohne Hill
The Word: Wonderful detail and a compelling script brings the lives of a girls’ soccer team and their challenges to the forefront. The small but essential role of a soccer mom rounds out the production with power and truth.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Running time – 90 minutes, no intermission
Through Oct. 20th
City Lights Theater Company
529 S. Second Street, San Jose
Tickets range from $23 – $47
For tickets, call (408) 295-4200 or visit www.cltc.org